I proposed to develop a workshop series for the Virtual Reality Atelier, an interdisciplinary minor program that brings together fashion and branding students, and developers and interaction designers to imagine the future of virtual fashion experiences together with industry partners. I coached a project on interactive cinema in VR a while ago and have seen quite a few VR demos in that context. What I often notice is that sometimes there’s little sense of spatial design or architecture in building an interesting virtual environment. The idea arose to use the process of dataphysicalization (the process of turning data into info-experiences) that I’ve been looking at and see if such a design process could spark new concepts for virtual spaces as well.
Getting into a datasculpting mindset
I’ve seen many interesting sculptures and objects in the realm of dataphys, and it’s not a huge step to imagine what they could do on a lifesize scale, if you’d blow them up. What is a better way to try that than in the context of computer-generated virtual worlds? The students accepted my proposal for a 3-part workshop called “Datasculptures as Virtual Worlds”. In the three sessions we: 1) analysed what kind of data was relevant to their project and the fashion brands they were working with (iNDiViDUALS, G-star and Alchemist, a sustainable brand). 2) we studied some examples of dataphysicalization to understand how numbers can be turned into tangible designs, and mapped the students’ datasets onto existing examples to gain better understanding of the process of formgiving with data. And 3) I asked them to develop their own ideas and create paper prototypes of a datasculpture and consequently, a mock-up of how the sculpture could work as architectural element or basis for the virtual environment.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose
The process was very interesting for me, because I had to stretch myself hard to find ways to get the students to think in a data designerly way. One of the big wins of the workshop was that the students started to think about data at all in these projects. For many of them, the potential of using datasets, let alone live data streams in their VR experiences was completely untapped as they had been focused more on other things such as simulation of the clothing, and ‘fits’ for examples. All of a sudden they started to ideate around the possibility of using user-generated data to let the experience itself change shape. It seems to spark a new way of thinking about the components of the VR experience, and how information could be layered and folded onto and into the experience.
However, the timing of the workshop would have been better had it been earlier in their project. When I got to meet them they’d already progressed quite a bit and weren’t necessarily inclined to add new objectives and designs to their project at that point. Some groups struggled to find the relevance at the stage they were in and didn’t finish the assignment as planned. I let it be for now when they didn’t strictly stick to it, but it makes it hard to assess to what extent the architectural ideas could have worked out. The teams could all see how it would have helped them imagine the space in a lively and more experiential way, had it been planned earlier. It was also clear how a lot of hidden or unused data could enrich the experience itself, adding meaning to the interaction and the space the users enter.
Notes to self
This kind of design exercise is great earlier on, in the beginning of such a project, because addressing data in a sculptural way does open up space for new ideas about spatial design and experience design. We need to spend time with the datasets/datastreams and allow for the possibility to add and invent new ones. Analysing existing examples and re-mapping them with own data is a very powerful way to help participants come to terms with the process of “datasculpting”. Paper prototyping and making mock-ups works well to refine and communicate ideas (as always!), you can start to see how something could really work, how it would feel to walk around in it. The teams that put themselves through the hands-on process of actually realizing a prototype felt a much stronger connection to the potential of their initial idea. I’ve noticed in previous work that a large percentage of design(!) students really struggle to get their hands dirty, there are large amounts of students that are very reluctant to actually build (see previous design coaching projects).
The work is working on an idea, not having one
What a missed opportunity: hands-on building of rough ideas requires the kind of creative problem-solving that really accelerates the creative process. The idea is only the starting point, the work after the idea is the real work, even if you are just doing it in paper form. Having an idea is not the creative work my darlings! Hmm this is an ongoing struggle, I’m not the only one running into this (Jonathan Ives). Stuart Brown relates play and the ability for hands-on building and problem solving as a crucial factor in innovation. It seems clear that this is a skill that is slowly getting lost in current state of (design) education. The groups that flaked out a bit at the end and didn’t get to an actual paper prototype and mock-up (they only made a render or a sketch), had a harder time seeing how it could be something to benefit their project. C’est la vie. I would like to try this workshop again, I think there’s potential but the program needs some refining to really tap into it.